“Living wage? Oooh, that’s a tricky question. Should it be imposed? What level should it be set at? Won’t lots of people lose their jobs? Shouldn’t people just be paid what the free market says they are “worth”? It’s better than the alternative, though, isn’t it? They are actually lucky they have jobs at all, aren’t they?”
These are some of the rhetorical questions that people ask when faced with the question of whether anonymous burger fryers in New York or distant garment factory workers in the East should be paid a living wage.
So let me put it another way.
Imagine your daughter slogging her way through a series of minimum wage jobs, coming home at four in the morning, feet blistered and clothes covered with beer slops; gritting her teeth while restaurant customers fling insults at her for the state of the food she did not cook; being stood over and yelled at while scraping chewing gum trodden into the opera house carpet. She doesn’t complain (well not much) because she knows all this is temporary. She knows this is a stepping stone on to better things. She sticks it out and as soon as she can get a “proper job” she puts it all behind her.
She is one of the lucky ones. She had a free education and a bit of financial backing from her parents. At the end of her shift she could come home and have her laundry done by Mum. She did – eventually – have alternative ways of earning a living. But what if she hadn’t? What if she and her partner had a baby? What if the only way they could make enough to feed the baby was for both of them to do two or even three of these jobs because they were paid so little for them that there were barely enough hours in the day to make enough to live on from them? Would you consider them “lucky” for having these jobs?
What if they had had to get into debt to pay their bills and the loan sharks started getting violent? What if the stress of it all drove them to drink and their baby was taken into care? Is this a situation a civilised society should consider acceptable? Is this within the realm of those precious “British values” we’re supposed to be teaching Johnny Foreigner?
What if your daughter had happened to be born in a country with no social services? What if someone said to them, “Your child is six already, he could come and work in my carpet factory? Of course, I can’t pay him a living wage (don’t make me laugh!) but you’re lucky I’m offering him this chance to help the family out.” What if the baby was a girl and someone offered them even more money to take the child – my granddaughter, your granddaughter – somewhere far away, promising a new life… (but in your heart of hearts you know it may be to a fate worse than death)? But if the alternative is starvation for them and for you (because by now you, the grandparents, are dependent on your daughter too as there’s no state pension and no NHS), is the little girl “lucky” to have this offer?
Oh, but I’m losing you, aren’t I? This is all getting too melodramatic, too exotic, too far from your own experience. You can’t relate to it any more. Thank your lucky stars that you can’t, that your daughter will never go through such a nightmare. It is the reality for millions of people – but what have they got to do with you? Ponder on that when you buy your next really cheap top or discount pack of tea.
Of course, I’m not blaming you. It’s not your fault. You don’t decide how much workers get paid. Actually neither does the shop where you bought your top or your tea bags. Neither do the agents who find the factories to source from. Even the factory owners are constrained by the prices they are paid for their products. Everyone’s just trying to survive, trying to do the best they can for their own daughters and sons, just as you are when you reach for the cheapest tea bags. There’s a whole complex system (they call it a supply chain but it’s more like a supply labyrinth) out there. You’re just a tiny part of it. You have no power…. or do you?
Did you know that retailers see you – yes you –as the most powerful person in the supply chain? They’ve done surveys of your opinions and you’re telling them that the way workers are treated is the most important issue of all to you. But then you always go for the cheapest option. Mind you, they are always advertising their relative cheapness, which may be the lead you are following. So lots of you abandoned Tesco and and Sainsburys for Aldi and Lidl because they’re cheaper, and now the big boys have started what the media is calling a “bloody” price war.
But the only people bleeding are going to be the workers in the darkest recesses of the supply labyrinth who will now have to work even harder to cover their bills. To feed their children and their parents. To fend off the debt collectors.
Of course you can afford to pay a little bit more and of course you would choose the fairer option if you knew what it was – but it’s hard to know, isn’t it? Unless it has a Fairtrade label on it, how can you tell? We’ve seen the documentaries that prove a higher price is no guarantee that workers are better paid, that it may just mean that factory owners or shareholders are better paid…
But there is one thing you can do, and it may surprise you. Before you put your money where your mouth is, put your mouth where your heart is. Let your regular supermarket and top shop know you care AND that you’re willing to pay a bit more. Send them a postcard, email, blog, Tweet and Facebook them. Buy shares and stand up and speak at their board meetings… Not to attack and insult them, but to show that you know you and they are in it together and that if they’re willing to do their bit, so are you.
If they know you’re serious they’ll try to do something about it. Really. They can’t do it on their own, but they can work with trade unions and NGOs and governments and their suppliers and each other to improve the lot of the millions who make what we wear and eat and use. And believe it or not many already are doing this.
We can all say, “You know what? Actually, no, it’s not acceptable that some people should have to live through hell so that others can buy a cheap top, or make a huge profit”. So let’s shave a little bit off our profits and add a little bit more to the price we pay. Let’s insist that the extra is intended for the workers and not the factory owner. And then there is actually a possibility that nobody will have to do more than one full time job, or work crazy overtime hours, or get into debt or put their kids out to work (or worse), just to live like a decent human being.
And before you dismiss all this as happy-clappy, bleeding heart, Guardian-reading nonsense, may I point out this quote in Forbes magazine from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England; “Inclusive capitalism is fundamentally about delivering a basic social contract comprised of relative equality of outcomes; equality of opportunity; and fairness across generations. Different societies will place different weights on these elements but few would omit any of them.” I’d also like to share this quote from proudly non-bleeding heart The Times, but you have to subscribe to read it… You can decide whether or not you’re willing to pay for that. You are more powerful than you know. But remember, and my final quote is from Spidey, “With great power comes great responsibility”.